Communists are not immune to the damaging trends and ideas bred by capitalism and its dominant ideologies. It would be naïve to think otherwise.
What is important for us is that these trends are identified and defeated.
In 2023, with the central role social media plays – especially in the lives of young people – styles of debate and discussion, honed on Twitter and elsewhere, often inspired by trends in the USA, are imported into our lives here in Britain.
We can see the impact of these trends in society at large, particularly among young people. Debate and discussion increasingly loses even the pretence of a good faith exchange of views or an attempt to convince others, and is more and more characterised by the abandoning of any nuance, personal attacks, and disingenuous histrionics – all conducted in public and for public consumption.
While denunciation is appropriate in the case of fascists and right wingers, these attitudes and this approach are generally not useful in the left and the labour movement and certainly not among Communists.
The sectarian battles conducted in the Labour Party during and post-Corbyn underline just how damaging this culture can be to the left and the labour movement and how it can be utilised by the right wing and external forces. These trends and the culture of internal complaints cannot be allowed to spread further across the left and the labour movement.
Democratic Centralism and the Communist Approach
Communists are and should be highly principled both collectively and as individuals, in both our internal and external debate. We should combat and openly address mistaken ideas, incorrect tactics, and opportunism but we must do so in a disciplined fashion, with humility, working hard to win working people to our politics in an accessible way.
Through hard experience, the international Communist movement has developed and organises according to the principle of democratic centralism. During internal discussion there is freedom of debate and freedom of criticism. But when collective democratic decisions are reached, any comrades who might have disagreed in the course of the debate, the minority, must accept the decision. All comrades must come together to carry out the decision and to defend the policy publicly, regardless of their private views.
Full and meaningful debate are fundamental to democratic centralism. Becoming an echo chamber which shies away from real debate and tends towards dogma is a dangerous position for any Communist movement and is contrary to the core tenets of Marxism-Leninism. Communists do and must conduct debate vigorously and at every level of our organisations from local branch meetings, in our Districts and Nations, Commissions and Advisories and other democratic structures, all the way up to the floor of Congress, the supreme democratic bodies of both the League and the Party.
At every level this debate must be conducted by comrades openly, honestly, without condescension or dogma and with respect for differing views and the process of growth and development undertaken by all young Communists.
Similarly, when out with our organisations working in the broader trade union, left, and progressive movements and in our communities, campuses, and workplaces, while we must always vigorously work to advance and win others to Communist policy, we must do in a in a respectful way, interacting in good faith, aiming to win others through convincing arguments matched by deeds and leading from the front.
Britain’s Communists have a historically essential role to play in the fight for Socialism in Britain, but that is a position that must be earned, not bestowed by name. Britain’s Communists are given respect in the wider movement for our history and our present work, but any comrade who believes a Party or YCL position will be afforded special deference or praise simply because it is espoused by Communists will be in for a rude awakening when working on the ground. Nothing should be taken for granted. We must always work with humility, enthusiasm, and energy to win others to our understanding and support for our policies.
Unity of Purpose and United in Action
Without democratic centralism we would lose our essential character as a Communist organisation. We would be unable to use our full strength to carry out the democratically decided work of the organisation, with all comrades pulling in different directions. We would be unable to have democratically decided policy on any issue, with the same infighting as the ruling class and ultra left parties – unable to act as one and present a united face to the world.
For anyone to think their individual opinion on any particular issue – or in general – is sacrosanct, infallible, or immune to compromise, is not only immature and individualist; it is totally contrary to Communist discipline and the spirit of debate and questioning everything. It is alien to our ideology and our history. Any Communist who claims to have never been mistaken or have changed their view in the course of a debate is being disingenuous. It is through the process of debate and discussion that we not only refine our policy and politics but also develop and improve our understanding of Marxism-Leninism individually and collectively.
No matter what the subject of the debate or discussion is, comrades must be able carry this out in a comradely manner without fear of personal attack or petty squabbles. Internal debate must be full and meaningful. All comrades must defend democratic decisions publicly, regardless of what they might think privately. We cannot expect democratic centralism to function in presence of Twitter-style histrionics or on a pick-and-choose basis.
Anyone who threatens to resign over this or that individual issue, policy, or decision should seriously consider their understanding of democratic centralism and Communist discipline.
Communism is a complete worldview and a fight for the liberation of humankind. If you are a Communist, this requires you to be in the Party and the YCL. All comrades may disagree with or question certain aspects of policy – this is healthy and to be expected, and is not to be feared. But it is childish for any comrade to think they are principled or noble if they break discipline or resign over any individual issue.
This behaviour can damage the organisation at every level and in so many ways. Imagine if Lenin or some of the Bolsheviks threatened or indeed did abandon the Party during any one of the many critical junctures where there was disagreement over certain policies or the correct path, questions much more fundamental than the questions than we have faced in Britain so far. There would be no Party and no revolution.
Similarly, while bullying or any behaviour of that sort is completely unacceptable and must not be tolerated, it is selfish and immature to let personal disagreements or squabbles grow or interfere with our work or the democratic structures.
While the vast majority of comrades can honestly say that they have never experienced any personal issues in their time and indeed have made many lifelong friends, some comrades may have some issues with one another from time to time. This is natural in the course of human interaction and comrades should be able to resolve these matters themselves or put them to the side. It is desirable, but not essential and unrealistic to expect that everyone will be friends.
What matters is that we are comrades with a common purpose and a common duty. To let personal differences interfere with that or impede the work of the YCL or the Party is both immature and selfish. It represents an individual and a collective failing. We must be disciplined enough to put our work and the organisation first. Not all members need to be friends, but we must all be comrades.
Lead from the Front – Lead by Example
Being a Communist isn’t easy.
We should have less time for the individualist grandstanders and their personal declarations and opinions, internally and externally, and have far more respect for comrades who work hard and participate in debate, argue their position in a comradely fashion, and then implement and defend the democratic decision – regardless of whether it differs from or even contradicts their personal view. This is democratic centralism.
Without it, a truly disciplined and Communist organisation will be impossible. If we cannot guard against these negative trends and foster a real culture of democratic centralism while our organisation is small but growing, we cannot expect it to continue growing or ever develop into a mass organisation.
What unites us as Communists is, and always will be, infinitely more than any passing issue or individual question of policy or strategy. What brings us together is our ideology, our history, our Party programme, our bonds of comradeship, and our common struggle. These can never be broken. These eclipse all else.
In the face of the power of the ruling class, their state, and the web of imperialism, the most powerful tool working people have is unity. With it, we are invincible.
As we grow and engage in new struggles, have successes and make mistakes, learn new lessons and confront new questions, let us do it together, in the spirit of comradeship, always united.
Johnnie Hunter is General Secretary of the Young Communist League